Be open-minded, be respectful, because disagreements can be had between good people with good intentions
We are ultra-social creatures – we live together in groups of hundreds or thousands, we divide labour as best we can, and we foster a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the group. Unlike some creatures of the animal world we do not centre our ultra-sociability on familial lines – instead we forge our tribe, our team around objects and principles that we hold sacred.
We bind ourselves to one another, we form teams, and we compete against the teams of others, this allows for great collaboration and progress, but also for the dark shadow side of those things in politics and war.
The existence of ‘sacredness’ is most apparent in religion, of course. Often there exists a binary, a very vertical binary – God at the top and Satan, or his counterpart, at the bottom.
The fact that religion holds fast and in some cases gets stronger and more rigid, literalist, and fundamental in the face of science is testament to the power of this process of making sacred, and fixed, certain ideas.
In order to counter this sometimes unhelpful psychological tendency it can be useful to consider what it is that will that make you more favourably disposed to the person—more likely to take their views seriously, less likely to demonize them?
Emotional hostility between those on the left and right of politics is exacerbated by a kind of wilful blindness to the ideas that the opposing side holds, even if those ideas are only marginally different from one another, in this way many a friend is lost.
The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill explained in 1859 that, “The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own.” Mills message was that if we do not study and understand the opinions of those who we disagree with we can’t really know to what degree they are wrong and we are right, or vice versa. He who knows only his own side of the case,” Mill said , “knows little of that.”
How can we know the strengths and weaknesses of our opponent’s argument if we do not even consider the possibility that they are to some tiny degree, in the right, or at least that they may have something to teach us?
Give concessions – that is to say, be clear about the political ground that you inhabit that is not ‘extreme’ – this will dispel your opponent’s notion that you are not credible because you are extremist. If you are able to offer a balanced perspective you will be seen as if not, more reliable and more persuasive, at least an equal – at least someone reasonable whose views are worth considering. How easily insults are thrown around by both the political right and left – and how alienating, rude, and unproductive that is.
Just hearing an ideological opponent make a minor concession creates significant differences in how they are viewed. It is the finding of common ground, a sense of the other person’s humanity and morality, that can make it more likely that you will have a productive and non-polarised conversation together.
Don’t assume that those who do not share your views are idiots or bigots – this unfortunate psychological tendency is self- defeating – it makes you unlikable, and does not encourage anyone to listen to your point of view.
Yes, frame your argument in a respectful manner, and resist the urge to reduce your opponent to a stereotype. But, don’t become so intent on being friendly that you steer entirely clear of differences and argument. Don’t just agree to disagree, as civilised as that option may seem. Stay true to who you are, and what you believe. Respectful conversation will do much to break the spell of group psychology.
We have a group forming psychological nature – even the most trivial differences will be used by us to divide us, to form sub groups. Perhaps this is why polarisation in politics can get so extreme so quickly, even between people who share a basic political stance. Bear this in mind when talking to one another, perhaps it is useful to stress both cohesive identity/belief structure as well as the diversity of opinion.
Even a moment of empathy can go a long way toward collaboration and being receptive to if not the opinion the humanity of others.
The ability to foster positive personal relationships is important to the development of nuanced and thorough critical thinking.
Yes, we are by nature likely to create polarised arguments and to use our critical thinking ability to reinforce our stance and to back our team, this should be resisted if it comes at the cost of obscuring the real truth and alienating those who would be our friends, colleagues, and allies.
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originally written for www.growthjournal.co